This is the white island. The white of the salt flats, the foam breaking in the breeze. The white of the rock. The white haze. Light at midday so intense that your eyes lose distance.
This is a place of transition and exchange. You dig down and reach the Roman, then the Phoenician. All the gods are here.
All islands face the compass.
This is an island of refuge, a place of exile. In the 1930s the island becomes an agora: artists, writers, architects from Berlin, Vienna, Paris, walking the dusty hills. What is needed here? It is the question you can ask in this white landscape. Émigré Raoul Hausmann, Viennese artist and writer, photographs a well, a chair, a doorway, a woman sitting, a naked body on the edge of the sea. This is essential, he writes. He notes the structures of the village buildings, the way forms repeat. He fixates on the cast of shadows on white walls. This is a place he can start again.
The philosopher, Walter Benjamin, Berlin via Paris and everywhere else, walks here too—the slow pace of his city life slowing even more. He notices the economy: “Three chairs along the wall of the room opposite the entrance greet the stranger with assurance and weightiness as if three works by Cranach or Gaugin were leaning against the wall; a sombrero over the back of the chair is more imposing than a precious Gobelin tapestry.” There are long days of “doing without countless things, less so because they shorten life than because none of them is available, or when they are, they are in such bad condition that you are glad to do without them—electric light and butter, liquor and running water, flirting and reading the paper.” The white island gives him “an image of such immutable perfection” that hovers on the very brink of the invisible. He starts to write a history of solitude.
The chairs make Benjamin think that the secret of the value of things is that they have “enough space to take possession of whatever new positions they are called upon to fill.” He starts to think about the aura of things.
White is not a stripping back to reveal, but a starting place. A page, a wall, a handful of white clay, porcelain, a block of stone. It is the pull and push between the object and its shadow.
Here are my white works. There are fragments of poetry, a winter song, part of an elegy by, Osip Mandelstam. There are sculptures made for strong light: gold behind alabaster, porcelain held within vitrines. They are my three chairs glimpsed through an open door. They are my objects taken on a journey. All they need is light, architecture, a window. And I’ve written on the wall. I’ve always wanted to write on walls.
You want it now? The light changes.
The senses get tired, writes Lydia Davis. You are on an island. Slow down.
Artwork © Edmund de Waal; Edmund de Waal: White Island, Museu d’Art Contemporani d’Eivissa, Ibiza, Spain, June 8–September 23, 2018